University of Rochester Medical Center Paying $3 Million For Unencrypted Laptop & Flash Drive

November 6, 2019

$3 million is the hefty price that the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) has agreed to pay to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to settle potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules arising from the loss of unencrypted laptops and other mobile devices containing protected health information (PHI).  Like prior settlements and civil monetary penalties OCR previously assessed against HIPAA-covered entities for using or storing electronic protected health information (ePHI) on unencrypted mobile devices, the $3 million sanction and other requirements imposed in the   URMC Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan  made public after the close of business on November 5 reaffirm OCR’s readiness to sanction harshly health care providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and businesses associates for the loss or compromise of ePHI due to the covered entity’s failure to appropriately encrypt mobile devices.  Any HIPAA covered entity or business associate that has not already done so must act to avoid a similar fate by establishing and enforcing systematic procedures to ensure all mobile devices using, accessing, storing or otherwise dealing with  ePHI are properly encrypted at all times.

URMC Breach & Resolution Agreement

The URMC Resolution Agreement resolves potential charges resulting from an OCR investigation commenced in response to breach reports UMRC filed with OCR in 2013 and 2017. The breach reports disclosed UMRC’s discovery of the impermissible disclosure of PHI through the loss of an unencrypted flash drive and theft of an unencrypted laptop, respectively. URMC includes healthcare components such as the School of Medicine and Dentistry and Strong Memorial Hospital. URMC is one of the largest health systems in New York State with over 26,000 employees.

OCR’s investigation revealed that URMC failed to conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis; implement security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level; utilize device and media controls; and employ a mechanism to encrypt and decrypt electronic protected health information (ePHI) when it was reasonable and appropriate to do so. Of note, in 2010, OCR investigated URMC concerning a similar breach involving a lost unencrypted flash drive and provided technical assistance to URMC. Despite the previous OCR investigation, and URMC’s own identification of a lack of encryption as a high risk to ePHI, URMC permitted the continued use of unencrypted mobile devices.

OCR made a point of reaffirming the requirement to encrypt laptops and other mobile devices containing ePHI when announcing the new Resolution Agreement. “Because theft and loss are constant threats, failing to encrypt mobile devices needlessly puts patient health information at risk,” said Roger Severino, OCR Director. “When covered entities are warned of their deficiencies, but fail to fix the problem, they will be held fully responsible for their neglect.”

As part of its punishment for allowing the ePHI breaches by failing to encrypt mobile devices, URMC must pay a $3 million monetary settlement as well as undertake a corrective action plan that includes two years of monitoring their compliance with the HIPAA Rules.

Mobile Device Encryption Requirement Well-Established

OCR repeatedly through published guidance and reported sanctions repeatedly  has warned covered entities and business associates not to permit ePHI to be used, accessed or stored on unencrypted laptops or other mobile devices.  In 2017, Children’s Medical Center of Dallas (Children’s) paid a  $3,217,000.00 Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP) after OCR issued its January 18, 2017 Final Determination that Children’s for years knowingly violated HIPAA by failing to encrypt or otherwise properly secure ePHI on laptops and other mobile devices and failing to comply with many other HIPAA requirements.  See Learn From Children’s New $3.2M+ HIPAA CMP For “Knowing” Violation of HIPAA Security Rules.   An OCR Newsletter Article on  Guidance on  Mobile Devices and Protected Health Information (PHI), for instance, states:

Entities regulated by the HIPAA Privacy, Security, and Breach Notification Rules (the HIPAA Rules) must be sure to include mobile devices in their enterprise-wide risk analysis and take action(s) to reduce risks identified with the use of mobile devices to a reasonable and appropriate level.
The article also shared insights about some of the steps OCR considers necessary to meet this expectation,  as including:

  • Implement policies for use of mobile devices that are used to handle PHI;
  • Consider using Mobile Device Management (MDM) software to secure mobile devices;
  • Install or enable automatic lock/logoff functions;
  • Require authentication to access devices;
  • Keep devices’ security features updated;
  • Procure encryption, anti-virus/anti-malware software, and remote wipe capabilities;
  • Use a privacy screen to prevent viewing by third-parties;
  • Assure that Wi-Fi networks used are secure;
  • Use a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN);
  • Institute policies regarding downloading third-party apps on devices which access PHI;
  • Delete all PHI from device before disposing of; and
  • Provide training on secure use of mobile devices for all employees.

Covered entities and business associates should promptly and continuously act to ensure on a systematic and carefully documented basis that their organization is taking these and and other steps necessary to ensure that all mobile device with ePHI are always appropriately encrypted.

We hope this information was helpful.  For more information about HIPAA or other related concerns, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

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About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

As a primary focus of this work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with domestic and international hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, insurers, self-insured health plans and other payers, health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Vice Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is noted for her decades-long leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and other privacy and data security and other health industry legal, public policy and operational concerns. This involvement encompasses helping health care systems and organizations, group and individual health care providers, health plans and insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health industry clients prevent, investigate, manage and resolve sexual assault, abuse, harassment and other organizational, provider and employee misconduct and other performance and behavior; manage Section 1557, Civil Rights Act and other discrimination and accommodation, and other regulatory, contractual and other compliance; vendors and suppliers; contracting and other terms of participation, medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA and other payers and other provider-payer relations, contracting, compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other technology, data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, antikickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care; internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns. to establish, administer and defend workforce and staffing, quality, and other compliance, risk management and operational practices, policies and actions; comply with requirements; investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement; and other strategic and operational concerns.

Author of leading works on HIPAA and a multitude of other health care, health plan and other health industry matters, the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and a former Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her services, experience and involvements, e-mail Ms. Stamer here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or see here.

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